By Asmaa Elourfi
Five months after Benghazi residents drove out extremist militias from the city centre, members of the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia brigade are now returning.
Patrolling hospitals and manning checkpoints, Ansar al-Sharia elements are back at their old posts. The Islamist militia was driven out of its main bases in eastern Libya’ s main city last September following public outrage over the terror attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
“Ansar al-Sharia elements are back to secure vital areas in Benghazi without being asked to,” 36-year-old employee at Benghazi Medical Centre Marawan al-Jahani said.
“However, they are still not wanted in the streets of Libya. Truthfully, Libyan people are religiously moderate, open minded and don’t accept any extremism,” he added.
Some members of the extremist militia were also present during celebrations marking the February 17th revolution, securing vital areas in place of police.
The militia also resumed outreach programmes in an effort to win over a local populace wary of the continued presence of rogue revolutionaries.
According to The Globe and Mail, Ansar al-Sharia has picked up where the weak interim government left off, filling a security vacuum and providing local humanitarian services. But many Libyans remain sceptical of the Islamist aid.
24-year-old water company employee Ahmed Mansour called for serving the country and loving it warmly. “However, the fact that Ansar al-Sharia offers their services free of charge makes us wonder why Ansar al-Sharia in particular works with this spirit,” he said.
“In my opinion, they have another purpose and are trying to proactively win people’s trust. This group knows quite well that using direct force in Benghazi is not in its interest. Therefore, I believe that they have a hidden agenda that simple people can’t see,” Mansour continued.
“I don’t want to cast doubts over their intentions, but it is still too early to praise anyone who wants to offer something to the nation and Benghazi without anything in return,” he added.
Benghazi has been plagued by intermittent turmoil in recent months, with assassinations of security officials and sporadic bombings. While Ansar al-Sharia has denied culpability, Libyan authorities have been unable to curtail the violence or arrest those responsible for the attack on the US consulate.
The inaction over the Islamist violence comes despite intelligence and reconnaissance support from Libya’s international partners. Drone over-flights are now a common occurrence in eastern Libya, where the aircraft provide information on the al-Qaeda threat for Libya and other countries.
Political scientist and former National Transitional Council member Fathi Baja told The Globe and Mail that “nobody” had authorised Ansar al-Sharia to resume operations or take up a security role.
“It’s a tactic for returning to Benghazi. The government doesn’t want a confrontation with them,” he said.
A specialised committee has been set up to monitor the various groups in charge of security in Benghazi, according to Mohammed al-Tayeb, the person in charge of the security file within the city’s local council.
“We’re only overseeing the process without interfering in the responsible entities’ tasks,” al-Tayeb told Magharebia.
Members of the Islamist Rafallah al-Sahati battalion are also reportedly returning to their old positions within Benghazi.
Faraj al-Mejbri, an employee in the administration of Rafallah al-Sahati, said his group never expected to be driven out of the city in the public rage over the consulate attack.
“We didn’t imagine that we would be treated like al-Fadheel Bou Omar battalion was treated when the young people rose against it during the revolution and the obscene words used to describe us,” al-Mejbri said.
“After that, there were many events and these Fridays never stopped. All of their demands were to remove the revolutionaries from the protection of state institutions although we are under state’s legitimacy,” he added.
He said that the militia was surprised by the reaction, saying they helped secure the congressional election.
“We’re under the legitimacy of the defence ministry, unless the ministry itself doesn’t have legitimacy in the first place,” the Rafallah al-Sahati official added.
“Libyan army chief Youssef al-Mangoush is telling us that he can’t form an army before three years, taking into consideration that the forces now on the ground are those of the revolutionaries,” he added.